Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NINJA STUFF: On Heartbreak And Diversity In Traditional Publishing (Part One)

Oh Esteemed Reader, my mind is filled with all the thoughts as I've just come from a SCBWI conference where I had a breakthrough moment and also learned odd news of an old nemesis/ex-girlfriend-kinda-sorta, and since I've just attended author Skila Brown's session on compelling openings, I'll hope to hook you by saying she's someone you may know (it's a little weak, but I save the good hooks for the writing I'm allowed to charge money for). It was a long, weird weekend in which the universe threw me an opportunity to mend old heartbreak. 

I'm going to share some personal stuff, partly to get it off my chest, and use my heartbreak to talk a bit about an issue with diversity in traditional publishing as I see it. If you'd prefer to read an interview with a more talented writer than myself or an editor or literary agent, that is perfectly understandable. You'll be happy to know I've secured some future interviews to share with you, but today it's just little old me.

I haven't attended a writer's conference since I made the decision to publish independently, mostly because I had a new baby and getting away has been a hassle. Also, one nice thing about publishing my own books is I'm allowed to query myself in whatever way I like, so there's no need for me to sit through an eleventy-billionth session on writing the perfect query letter. 

But the other YA Cannibals (my beloved critique group) signed up for the conference which was held 90 minutes away and only cost $150, which I judged to be a fair price for a weekend of drinking with my buddies. Author Mike Mullin and I are dangerously obnoxious around a bottle of booze, but I've only had a drink once in the 15 months since my son was born and I was overdue for some adult fun--and thankfully, no one recorded our buffoonery. Even so, I had Mrs. Ninja send me multiple pictures of Little Ninja eating and playing because two nights is the longest I've ever been away from him, and as much as I love my friends, I couldn't get back home fast enough.

I've written before about attending a conference with the YA Cannibals. We had a marvelous time, as usual, and I don't have words for how grateful I am to have such wonderful people in my life. But I don't want to bore you with a bunch of stories such as author Shannon Alexander's 7:00 am text of "Wake up, B*****s," which you really had to be there for to find funny. My legs still hurt because someone thought it was a good idea to let the author of Ashfall lead our hike through the woods and we scrambled over rocks and nearly died multiple times following a path Mike swears was an official trail, but I have my doubts.

The conference was held at McCormick Creak State Park in Spencer, Indiana where the next most exciting event planned for the week is the feeding of a small turtle in a tank (they had signs advertising the time and day of the turtle's feeding so we could make sure we weren't late). The theme of this year's conference was "Finding Common Ground In Diverse Characters" and to fully appreciate just how hilarious that is, you have to visit Spencer, Indiana with its white crosses everywhere and gun shops. You can't even get there by highway and one can almost hear the dueling banjos when one drives into town. Most of the diverse folks I know wouldn't let the sun set on them in such a place. In our conference I saw only two non-white faces who hadn't been imported as guest speakers. 

I'll say a great deal more on all that in the second part of this post, but as promised, this first part is about me, the most diverse of heterosexual white males:) Life is very strange, Esteemed Reader, and if it should some day be revealed we're actually living in a computer simulation as some have claimed, I won't be completely surprised. Reality sometimes gets fuzzy around the edges, that's all, and there are odd coincidences too strange to be ignored. I spent part of my weekend collecting ghosts stories and a tale of a grandmother who could accurately predict deaths of family members based on recurring dreams she had. I'm working on a new horror novel I'm quite excited about and such tidbits are of great use to me.

A few months back, I got an out-of-the-blue email from another conference I sometimes attend containing an interview with the newest faculty member. I usually delete such emails without opening them, but the email caught me on a morning when I was avoiding writing and the picture at the top of the interview caused my heart to skip a beat as smiling back at me was a face I banished from my mind many years ago, her face. Somewhere far off I heard Sarah McLachlan singing about the arms of the angel, which was the theme of a prom I once attended (sort of funny, given what Angel is actually about). I banished that song from my house long ago as it brought with it too many painful memories, but these days it just makes me think of those commercials about unwanted puppies and kittens.

I checked the bio and the first name was the same, even if the last has changed. I hadn't seen that face in 16 years and the last time I saw it was through the windshield of my car when I nearly hit her while delivering pizzas. She ran out in front of me and I slammed the brakes because I hadn't seen who it was first:) But all that took place in an Indiana town smaller than Spencer when I was much younger and she's someone I haven't spent much time thinking about since.

The interview came with a website link and would you look at that, she's still writing, is in fact an aspiring young adult novelist who now runs a very popular blog where she interviews writers and literary agents, which is why I'm not using her name as you may have read it. There can only be so many YA authors blogging in Indiana and attending conferences and my thought was "F**K! Sooner or later I'm going to bump into this person (God, anyone but her!) in a professional setting and wouldn't it be nice to not have that blow up in my face.

So I shot her a quick email: "Hey, how you doing, sorry I nearly killed you with my car 16 years ago, remember when we tried to make that movie about giant robot bees, well I haven't changed much, if you see me in public, let's not be awkward as we're adults now, peace!" She responded, "Hey, glad you didn't kill me, what a small world it is, and look at you, also all still alive and stuff." And I offered her a review copy of a book because, ya know, I have books to sell and she does run a very popular blog:)

The End.

Except her name came up at the conference this weekend as Indiana is a very small place and the Hoosier writing community is even smaller. I didn't bring her up as for me, she'd already disappeared back into that same ethereal nothingness that swallowed most of the other folks I knew when I was a teenager and whom I also have no overwhelming desire to ever see again. Apparently she's just signed with a new literary agent. My literary agent. 

"Huh," I said to the person who mentioned this to me. "She and I used to date,"--which is not quite accurate, but it's the closest shorthand word for our extremely unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship/dramatic love triangle that involved me paying for a lot of food, some dancing, some kissing, and tears--"and she's a liar."

Whoa! Easy, killer! How long has that anger been rattling around my subconscious?

Immediately, I had to back up. "I'm sorry," I said. "She's probably a wonderful person now and I don't know her at all. She's a total stranger to me, which is a relationship that's going really well and I hope continues. I read she's married and has kids and if she ever publishes her novel, I'll probably read it as her writing was the thing I liked most about her. I'm sure she's very truthful."

Oh my God, my agent and the first girl who broke my heart! The first girl who broke my heart and my agent! But this means... But this changes... And how does all this effect ME!?!

It doesn't, actually. It's a little weird, but it doesn't mean anything. It changes nothing. After all, my agent's got to sell somebody's book, so why not somebody from my hometown who I certainly thought was someone special once upon a time?

If this were a novel, there'd be more to this story, perhaps when she and I got booked working the same booth at a conference and the power suddenly went out! Fuzzy around the edges it may be, but life isn't a novel and I think this story ends the way so many of reality's stories end: with a bit of self reflection followed by the next chapter in life.

And as I drove the 90 minutes from Spencer back to Indianapolis, memories seeped through my veins and I thought for the first time in at least a decade, probably longer, of that sweet madness, ohhooooh, and gloryeeeeous saaaaadnesss, that brought me to my kneee-eh-heeeees (writer tip--always reference copyrighted lyrics in a free blog post rather than your fiction so you don't have to pay Sarah Mclauglin squat, though I promise to adopt another animal some day).

The first time your heart breaks is the worst. When it happens to Little Ninja, I'm sure I won't understand, as no parent does, and I'm no longer sure I understood my own. Because I remember weeping in a park after an encounter with this person, and not just crying, but sprawled out on a picnic table moaning and writhing as though I'd been in a war.

Sorry, young me, but I'm laughing at you. I can't help it. You were ridiculous! Teenagers, am I right? That's probably why in the only young adult novel I've written, I killed them all:) And as I drove, I began to remember the actual events of 16 years ago, not the fiction I weaved for myself as we writers are predisposed to doing. I looked objectively (mostly) at just the facts, forgetting I was the hero and she was the villain, and tried to piece together what happened as well as I can this far removed.

The conclusion I came to was that if I had a daughter, I wouldn't let a boy like young me anywhere near her. For the first time it occurred to me that this person who shall not be named was not Sauron, the dark lord, but just some girl growing up in the same Indiana town as I who had the misfortune to meet me in my awkward transition to adulthood, though judging by some of this weekend's antics, I'm still transitioning:) She's just another writer, and I know a lot of those, so can I really be surprised she occasionally behaved in strange ways? I certainly did (and do). She was no more innocent or guilty than I was, and even if one of us could definitively be proven to have been the bad one, we were children. We survived, we're both still writing, we have families, so it's to be happy endings all around. 

Had we met now for the first time as writers with families, we might have shared some writing tips and never spoke again. And in the event I bump into her some time, which somehow seems likely in this teeny, tiny state of ours in which the cast of characters apparently does not change, I don't need to be awkward or afraid or any kind of way. Two writers growing up in the same small town at the same time and then going on to run similar blogs and be represented by the same literary agent isn't fate or proof reality is a simulation, but a coincidence.


And when I reached home and came through the front door and Little Ninja, who only just started walking earlier this year, came running toward me with his arms raised and yelled "Da-da" and my heart really, finally, and truly did explode with a happiness that brought me to my knees, and Mrs. Ninja, my faithful partner and best friend gave me a big kiss, I wondered how I could ever have thought I knew what love was when I was so very young, and so very stupid.

But I won't be too hard on myself. Later, as Little Ninja stumbled around our new home shouting gibberish and smacking things, he fell and hurt himself and wept. Naturally, I pulled him to me and held him and made soft sounds and whispered "All Right Now" TM:) But Little Ninja wept and screamed and was inconsolable for several moments until at last I tickled him and got him laughing, and then everything in the world was the best thing evah!!! again.

And that's what it was for me! I thought.

I'm doing the best job of parenting I can, honest, but unless you tie them up, kids fall down and bump themselves. Sometimes dinner isn't ready the exact moment it occurred to him he should have it and sometimes he doesn't want to go to bed yet and sometimes the cat runs away before he can smack her and each time it's the worst thing that could ever happen or has ever happened in the history of all mankind and inconsolable weeping is the only appropriate reaction he can be expected to have. And as I hold him and do my daddy duty, I hurt for him because I know he has no perspective and it really is as bad as all that until he learns there are degrees of pain. 

I was a child who got his heart broken, that's all. It wasn't the last time a girl broke my heart and it wasn't the worst time (not blogging about that one, but I might put it in a novel someday). I know I broke a couple hearts myself. But I never again behaved so badly after a heart break, because I gained perspective.

So I reach back through the years and pat young me's shoulder as he makes a mess of himself on that picnic table. You fell down and bumped yourself, young me. Learn from it and move on and know that one day you will write a very long post on a blog that's at least as successful as hers and snort laugh about the whole thing. 

And also, SMACK!!! Pull yourself together man! People might see you! Put those cigarettes down and would it kill you to get a haircut!?! Get a pen, young me, because we have a long list of behaviors that need to be modified. 

Oh, and those casually racist thoughts I know you sometimes have? One day you're going to occasionally appear on lists of bestsellers in African American fiction, so you're definitely going to want to rethink some things:) Let me show you a picture of your future wife and son because this is going to blow your small-town mind.

Which brings us back to diversity in traditional publishing and the other did-that-just-actually-occur-in-reality-for-real thing that happened when Mike Mullin and I asked some pointed questions about diversity to publishing representatives during a Q and A at this weekend's conference. But this post is out of control long, so I think we'll save that strange tale for part two. 

Come back on Friday for more, same Ninja time, same Ninja channel.

And if you happen to be she-who-must-not-be-named and you found your way to this post, how weird must that be for you!?! I totally didn't write this for you and kinda wish you hadn't read it as it's not actually about you, but if you did read it, I hope you got a laugh and I'm sorry for being a jerk way back when:) And please take comfort in knowing that being a jerk to you got me to the place where I could be less of a jerk to others, which doesn't really help you out, but I'm sure 16 years is enough time to let it go (this post aside). Congrats on signing with the world's best literary agent and good luck.

1 comment:

  1. If only we could go back and chat with our younger selves, but then maybe we wouldn't be the adults we are. I'm interested to see what kind of answers you got on diversity from publishing representatives during that Q and A session. Take Care.


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